In order to reach the zenith of any human endeavor or field of knowledge, one must have a teacher, guide or a mentor. If you want to be topnotch athlete, you would certainly need a capable coach to train you and help you achieve your goal. Similarly, one who chooses to tread a spiritual path seeking God realization needs a master or a guide referred to as a Guru in Hinduism.
The word 'guru' literally means the 'weighted one' i.e. the one who is heavily loaded with spiritual knowledge or divine wisdom. It also means the one who leads his disciples from the darkness of ignorance to spiritual enlightenment by imparting divine knowledge. A guru is the one who guides his or her disciple to become a Jivamukta i.e. a liberated soul that achieves salvation in his or her lifetime through God-realization. In the modern world, however, the word Guru has acquired a distorted, secular meaning- an expert or a highly knowledgeable person in any field.
This important Hindu concept of Guru dates back to the ancient Vedic times when seers revealed their spiritual insights, and sages taught their wisdom to a few select disciples called Shishyas. These teachings were usually transmitted in privacy and were esoteric, not meant for general public.
In ancient India, the guru served another purpose. Having attained God-realization, he would set an example for his disciples by living himself a life of simplicity, selfless-service and discipline. He not only imparted moral values and spiritual knowledge to his disciples, he himself practiced simple living and high thinking. A guru commanded the disciples' highest reverence by his actions. Therefore, a disciple would never question a guru's word. Such a Guru is known as Sadguru or a true (competent) Guru.
In fact, Hinduism ascends Sadguru to divinity. "Guru represents all three aspects of God as creator, sustainer and regenerator. He is the supreme being to whom I bow." This concept spawned many sects and movements in Hinduism. This is also the foundation of Sikhism.
With the advent of the secular education in India, gurus have been replaced by school teachers and college professors, but the traditional bond between guru and his disciple (teacher and student) survived. In modern India, teachers are still accorded the highest respect, both by students and their parents. Teaching has always been considered a noble profession. Many years ago, when visiting New Delhi, I bumped into my English teacher of grade 5, a gray haired Sikh gentleman. I was so gripped by the ecstasy of joy that I fell at his feet. He pulled me up by the arm to embrace me, and the tears of joy rolled down my cheeks. It created quite a melodramatic scene in the marketplace, but my embarrassment was worth the joy I had experienced in this encounter.
Despite the changes in the educational system, modern India still has a large population of self-proclaimed gurus, but only a few are Sadgurus following the traditional system. Many of them were highly successful professionals before renouncing the material world in order to follow the spiritual path to God-realization. Their writings and public discourses on mass media have attracted thousands of followers, Hindus and non-Hindus, around the world. They motivate their followers not to join the Western rat-race of consumerism, and encourage them to keep their traditional values.
India is also infested with bogus gurus catering to the needs of fake devotees who, instead of God realization, are looking for miraculous solutions to their personal problems related to health, marriage, infertility, unemployment, romance and business failures etc. Many of these saffron-clad charlatans are in fact astrologers, bards, preachers, yoga instructors, faith healers and devotional singers disguised as gurus to earn their living. They prescribe sacred mantras, charms and rituals to 'solve' their devotees' personal problems. They have amassed enormous wealth, and live luxuriously in major urban centers. Many of them visit Canada regularly every summer when the weather in India gets too hot for them. I have rarely seen any guru visiting Canada during the winter. They are sponsored by their 'devotees' or temples who pay them a fee for their performance.
Many egocentric gurus visit Canada for fame, in order to enhance their image in India as foreign-returned gurus so that they can become more marketable. Since there are not many Hindus in Canada seeking God-realization, these gurus, if they are genuine, should stay in India and serve the poor by emulating Christian missionaries.